President Donald Trump’s surprising, controversial decision to withdraw American troops from Syria will change not only the already complex Syrian situation, but possibly the entire regional strategic setup.
Even more controversial was Trump’s decision to rely on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria” because, in Trump’s words, Erdogan “is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right ‘next door.’”
Trump probably is not aware of the past collusion between Erdogan’s Turkey, Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, some 12,000 foreign jihadis, many destined to become suicide bombers, entered Syria and Iraq from Turkey. Only at the end of 2013, under pressure from the US, did Turkey begin to increase border security making it more difficult for foreign jihadists to pass through.
According to the research paper “ISIS-Turkey Links” by a team at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, published in September 2016, Turkey is collaborating with Islamic State on the military level, weapons transfers, logistical support, financial assistance, and the provision of medical services.
Among the most noticeable information cited in the report:
Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, head of the Turkish Republican People’s Party, produced a statement from the Adana office of the prosecutor on October 14, 2014, maintaining that Turkey supplied weapons to terror groups;
On January 19, 2014, three trucks loaded with weapons in Esenboga Airport in Ankara, were driven to the border, where a Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) agent was supposed to take over and drive the trucks to Syria to deliver them to ISIS and other groups. MIT agents tried to keep the police inspectors from looking inside the crates where they found rockets, arms, and ammunitions. Two Turkish journalists, Can Dundar (editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet) and Erdem Gul, were tried for treason over publishing photos of these weapons.
A senior Egyptian official indicated in October 2014 that Turkish intelligence is passing satellite imagery and other data to ISIS;
CNN Turk reported in July 2014 that in the heart of Istanbul, places like Duzce and Adapazari, have become gathering spots for ISIS terrorists where they trained. Turkish security forces could have stopped these activities if they wanted to;
An ISIS commander told The Washington Post on August 12, 2014, “We used to have some fighters – even high-level members of ISIS – getting treated in Turkish hospitals.” The Turkish state paid for their treatment.
The New York Times reported in September 2014 about the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Turkey to crack down on Islamic State’s extensive oil sales network. In December 2015, Moscow published satellite images showing Turkish columns of tanker trucks filling up in ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria before crossing the border into Turkey with no restrictions.
According to information Russia received, “Erdogan and his family are involved in this criminal business.” The connection of Erdogan’s family with the oil smuggling of ISIS was revealed after WikiLeaks published emails from the Turkish energy minister, Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. According to captured senior ISIS operative Saddam al-Jamal, before the Kurds took over Raqqa and cut of the roads to Idlib and Aleppo, all the oil would go to Turkey.
In June 2014, ISIS fighters took 49 Turkish diplomats, staff members and their families hostage, from the consulate in Mosul, Iraq. When the hostages were liberated in September 2014, Erdogan refused to explain why ISIS decided to release his country’s diplomats, raising suspicions about Ankara’s murky relationship with the caliphate. Indeed, reports revealed that around 185 ISIS members, some of them held in Turkish jails, others held captive by Syrian groups allied with Turkey, were freed in exchange.
According to Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey and the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009, Erdogan’s preference for Sunni dominance explains Turkey’s lax border policies over the past years and its failure to take ISIS seriously as a threat until the fall of Mosul and the beheadings of Western hostages. Even then, Turkey was reluctant to change course.
The second main reason for Erdogan’s flirting with ISIS is his deep fear that a Kurdish independent statelet in northern Syria could strengthen the Kurdish PKK in its fight for similar achievements in Turkey. By disrupting logistics and communications links between the PKK in Iraq and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, Turkey was weakening the most effective ground force fighting ISIS, which liberated the Kurdish city of Kobani in 2014 and retook Tal Abyad in summer 2015, cutting off a key route for infiltration of arms and foreign fighters for ISIS.
Turkey’s support to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, also shows the duplicity of Erdogan’s regime. The US has pressured Turkey to cease its support for al-Nusra, and US officials have been clear that its rebranding to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and more recently to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has not changed the perception of the group in Washington.
On September 17, 2018, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement over the last opposition enclave in Idlib, Syria, to create a 15 to 25 km. buffer zone by October 15. Heavy weaponry and radical elements had to be removed from the zone. HTS and other extreme Islamist groups hold over two-thirds of the buffer area, and over half of the rest of Idlib. Idlib’s other main rebel faction, a Turkish-aligned alliance of groups known as the National Liberation Front, has repeatedly expressed its support for the agreement.
The main issue remains the fate of thousands of HTS fighters. Turkey has to deliver the goods to the Russian partner, already nervous that the 15 October deadline has not been respected. It has been reported that one of the alternatives considered by Erdogan’s government would be to ensure that HTS leaves unharmed Idlib and transfers to northeastern Syria to fight the Kurds.
The writer is a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He lectures on international terrorism and CBRN terrorism at the M.A. Counterterrorism Studies at IDC.